The golden age for sports documentaries continues to get better for sports fans. ESPN, HBO, NBC, CBS, Fox, and others have all produced excellent documentaries over the past couple years telling some of the great stories from the sports world. Some of these stories have been well known and examined in a new way, others have brought to light for the first time to a wider audience.
This Saturday night at 7 PM ET, Big Ten Network enters the realm with their first feature length documentary, Tiebreaker, on the 1973 Ohio State-Michigan.
In the annals of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, the '73 game is perhaps the most infamous… not so much for what happened on the field, but for what happened in the aftermath.
Ohio State entered Ann Arbor #1 in the country at 9-0. 10-0 Michigan was ranked #4 in the country. In the days of the Big 2 and the Little 8 and the Ten Year War, the winner would go to the Rose Bowl and have a serious chance at a national championship. Also at that time, conference rules dictated that only one team would go to a bowl game so the loser's season would be done.
The game ended in a 10-10 tie and the Rose Bowl berth would be decided in a vote by conference athletic directors. At the time, both sides believed Michigan would win the vote with even Woody Hayes consigned to his fate. Ohio State had been the previous season and the conference had just changed a rule banning repeat visits to Pasadena. Observers believed Michigan played the better game on the day, missing 2 field goals in the final 2 minutes that could have won. (Although it is amusing to hear folks from the Michigan side talk about how they "won" the game when it was indeed a tie.) And, 4 Big Ten ADs at other schools were Michigan alums.
In a shock that is still surrounded in a shroud of mystery, Ohio State won the vote (either 5-4-1 or 6-4, the documentary explores the uncertainty about the final tally in the secret vote), went to Pasadena, and won the Rose Bowl.
The one hour documentary is split into two parts with the first half focused on the game itself and the second on the controversial, secretive aftermath. BTN spoke to almost all of the key players involved on camera. Among them were QB Cornelius Greene, RB Archie Griffin, and LB Randy Gradishar from Ohio State and QB Dennis Franklin, DT Dave Gallagher, and K Mike Lantry from Michigan.
The real strength of the documentary is footage interspersed throughout the program from a dinner between 6 players from both teams including those listed above. It's reminiscent of the Survive and Advance 30 for 30 about NC State. The players themselves tell the story of the game and the controversy and it's remarkable to see the camaraderie and memories of the '73 game that exist 40 years later. To see some of the iconic figures on both sides of the rivalry come together in such a unique way is quite the score for BTN.
"We laughed, we joked, had a good time sharing stories. It got to a point where everybody just enjoyed sharing among each other," Griffin said. "I thought it was great, I appreciated the opportunity to come together like that."
Franklin added, "I really appreciated the opportunity just to be together. That's what the rivalry makes you appreciate. The love for one another as human beings, to have competed against each other, to represent this rivalry this way and what it stands for, and to break bread and share in those memories. It was a lot of fun. It was really special."
There's a realness to the dinner scenes that brings the viewer into the room with the players. The solemn moments when kicker Mike Lantry's discusses his two misses that would have won the game. The slight tension that is noticeable when the topic of the vote comes up. And most of all, the common bond that exists between the players.
According to co-director Matt Engel, that bond was one of the highlights in the process of bringing the idea to the airwaves. "We all had heard about the bitterness of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry and we discovered the people recruited by Bo and Woody were the same type of people," Engel said. "40 years later they share that common bond that they played for very similar men. They were some of the classiest people that we could have imagined."
Admittedly, highlights from the game are sparse for a contest that featured a low scoring, "three yards and a cloud of dust" affair. Ohio State threw the ball just 4 times and completed 0 passes and the teams combined for over 100 rushing attempts. For younger football fans, hearing the voices of Chris Schenkel and Michigan radio announcer Bob Ufer is a great piece of nostalgia, particularly Ufer's rabid call of the Ohio State players tearing down the Michigan banner.
"They will meet a dastardly fate for that! There isn't a Michigan man who wouldn't want to go out and scalp those Buckeyes right now."
The film picks up the pace with the storytelling about the controversial vote and the billing as "College football's Watergate" seems apt given the mystery over what transpired. It was assuring to see the BTN film not go easy on former Big Ten commish Wayne Duke and conference attorney Byron Gregory for their roles in the vote. Gregory refused to appear on camera and invoked attorney-client privilege to keep quiet in a situation where conspiracy theories abound. In particular, the intrigue surrounding the vote and motives of Michigan State AD Burt Smith seems like it came right out of an episode of Perry Mason… or whatever contemporary drama from a generation ago you'd like to insert.
At times an hour seems too short to explore all the angles present. It'd be nice to hear more on the backgrounds of Franklin and Greene as the first two African American quarterbacks for both schools. The story of kicker Mike Lantry, a Vietnam War veteran, is also worth exploring further. Lantry not only missed two kicks in '73, but another potential game winning kick in the last minute the next year in Columbus. The legacy of the game within the rivalry and the impact moving forward could both be expanded upon. These stories are all touched upon, but could use more time to really make a deeper investment in the film.
That said, there's nothing quite like this story in the history of the Big Ten and maybe even within college football. Rivalry, mystery, controversy, and a lasting legacy that had a decisive impact on the sport. It's an hour of television any college football fan should search out and soak in.